— Elizabeth Barret Browning, British Poet, and Writer
Frank Jirouch's 1928 bronze sculpture, "Night Passing the Earth to Day" (Detail)
I Love Him. I Love Him Not.
There is a child's game. Perhaps you know it. You take a petaled flower or clover, and you recite an age-old ditty. "I love him," then you pluck a petal. "I love him not." Whichever you said when you pluck the last petal is fate. You love him. Or you don't.
Elizabeth Barret Browning's "How do I love thee" reminds me of this child's game. While the ditty is one of sealed fate, a simplistic toy to determine love — all agency is lost in the finality of whatever is said at the last petal. And could you cheat and count the petals beforehand — but perhaps that defeats the purpose of reciting the words, anyway. One plucks the petals because one is in a state of indecision.
Which way to go? Who to love?
But Barret Browning's poem is of a different quality. It has the cadence of a ditty, but it suggests something more — call it agency — or call it freedom. In her poem, she "counts the ways," and she is not about allowing fate to decide the outcome. She loves. And she has an infinite number of reasons, of ways, of patterns, and qualities on a display of that love.